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Dungeons & Dragons Fantasy Roleplaying Game: The Essential Dungeons & Dragons Starter

JLant

Villager
This is a review of the Dungeons & Dragons Fantasy Roleplaying Game: The Essential Dungeons & Dragons Starter boxed set by Jeremy Crawford, Mike Mearls, Bill Slavicsek, Rodney Thompson and James Wyatt. The blurb on the back cover states that this is an introductory set for character levels 1-2. It was originally posted on rpg.net and has been since edited based on discussion with folks on that board. Thanks guys!

Physical Appearance:

The box is made of thick cardstock with a nice glossy finish and is substantially sturdier and thicker than its progenitor. The contents include the following: a 32-page Player’s book, a 64-page Dungeon Master’s book, a set of dice (d4, d6, d8, d10, d12 and d20: black with white ink), sheets of character and monster tokens, several sheets of 4E format powers and magic items, an insert for downloading a free solo adventure and a double sided full color map. The box’s interior space is largely wasted as the contents, minus the insert, take up less than half the volume. Note to the designers: in my experience, a box half as thick, made from the same material will last a lot longer (case in point: D&D 2E Forgotten Realms Boxed set *broken and taped up* versus Tales of the Comet *scuffed up but fully intact*.)

The books are printed on glossy paper, with a white background, easy to read font and attractive illustrations. The dice, while somewhat plain, are very easy to read (white ink on black background). Character and Monster counters are of good weight and were easy to punch without bending with a glossy finish and nice artwork. It is a particularly nice touch that they are double-sided so that there are twice as many representations as one would expect from the number of pogs. I imagine they will last a good amount of time even with heavy use. In contrast, the power/item cards were on much lighter media and somewhat laborious to “punch out”. Caution had to be taken to not “dog-ear” or bend them when removing them from the sheets. Given their weight, I can’t see them lasting too long so I put them in card holders. All I had available were Magic the Gathering backed sleeves – these work well for stiffening up the cards but obscure the color coding on the back; I would suggest using clear backed holders of similar weight.

The map is attractive, representing a decent sized dungeon on one side and split between a wilderness crossroads and a cave lair. Personally, I think Dungeon tiles would be a better choice, but that may not have been an option for the MSRP. Given the price point, the box contents are a good value for the money. I also downloaded the Witchlight Fens "web enhancement" the codes for which were included in the boxed set on a flyer. For those who have the box, it is a solo adventure (without the character building aspects) that is well worth getting. It introduces some trap "encounters" and looks pretty good.

Playtest

I am a father, raising the next generation of (unplugged) gamers (ages 11 & 8 as of this writing), and bought this set as an introduction to D&D in particular and roleplaying games in general. My fantasy system of choice is the Pathfinder roleplaying game and the associated Golarion setting. However, as almost all of its products tend to contain fairly mature themes, I have chosen to get my kids’ feet wet with the latest edition of D&D. This product also seemed to cater to “roleplaying naïve” folks better than other options. We cracked open the box and I gave the 11-yo the Player’s Book to read as the 8-yo and I organized the components. He made it through the “choose your own adventure” format without incident, ending up with a human rogue. Due to the reading level, I went through the same operation with the 8-yo; she ended up with a cleric.

There were two particularly positive points from this experience. First, neither ended up with what they originally intended (he was thinking fighter, she wizard). This speaks to the strength of the designers’’ approach to find what the players would *really* like to play rather than what they *think* they’d enjoy playing. Second, the 11-yo learned the key points well enough to give his sister pointers during her exercise.

A couple of shortcomings in the delivery appeared as well. First, while the artwork was attractive, I don’t think the illustrations on pages 3-5 give any indication that there is any difference, aside from bonuses, between human, dwarf or halfling; even the elf has only his long ears to distinguish him. This is partially due to the lack of a scale comparison between the illustrations but also because the designers did not provide any information about the races up-front. I believe they may have forgotten that not everyone has seen Lord of the Rings; IMO this is a big omission in an introductory product that could have easily been rectified by a few lines of description about their appearance and key racial (not just stat bonus) features. A second much more serious shortcoming (especially for such a gateway product) is the lack of detail and some editing errors. For example, on page 13, #37 there is discussion of the attack modes for a cleric (weapon[mace]: wisdom modifier + 2 or implement wisdom modifier). However, in the boxes, the weapon is a sword (+8 AB) and implement (+4 AB). As this continues, the weapon returns to mace and the AB is back to (+5/+6, depending on race selections). Not a big deal for an “old hand” but somewhat confusing for a newbie. In addition, there is no one or two sentence explanation about when to use a weapon attack versus an implement (aside from the obviously higher AB for the former). After writing the initial version of this review, I (and many others from what I’ve seen on the forums) have noticed many additional editing errors or inconvenient placement of rules.

By the time the player’s book concluded, both kids had a decent grasp of the system. They also really enjoyed the experience. In places a little bit more detail about the math behind some of the numbers as well as more careful editing would make this a stellar book. Note to the designers: instead of keeping it on the back of the player’s booklet, the summary should be on one side of a cardstock handout; on the other should be a list of typical Actions one might take broken down by type (Standard, Move, Minor etc.) and Conditions (both from the Dungeon Master’s Book.) I do appreciate the limiting of race and class options as it makes the system infinitely more accessible to newcomers while still giving them a taste of its potential. I have seen it stated elsewhere and I have to agree that a quick character creation summary would be a good addition to this section

The Dungeon Master’s Book follows the same attractive layout as the Player’s Book and is organized with a third devoted to the game system, a third covering an adventure and a third discussing adventure design (along with a bestiary). It starts out with a little over a page about the DM’s role. It then eases the DM into their role by starting out with their “first encounter” that introducing the concepts of an “immediate action” and “combat advantage” along with monster tactics with an encounter with two goblins and two wolves. This is brilliantly done and allows the players (and DM) to digest these two chunks before proceeding. My son's friend came over and was interested in playing too. As it turned out he also made a rogue so my son took the warrior and my (long-suffering) wife, the wizard. I did remind them of various things during the combat but after the first two rounds (of 5) they got the hang of it. After we finished this first encounter, the three kids all had fun but my son's friend (no academic slouch) said it was a "lot to keep track of". Thus go the children of the Wii and Halo generation. Nevertheless, I'm pretty sure he'll be back. I will say that the inclusion of the power cards was key to their enjoyment of the game. As a side note, it was pretty funny to see my (cautious) son getting nervous that his (brash) sister was going to blow her (and her mom’s) encounter powers (‘Pillar of Fire’ mommy!!!) too quickly. Mommy was bored to tears; just not her cup of tea but she took one for the team.

After the introduction to the role of the DM and the sample encounter it launches into a Nuts & bolts discussion of running the game starting with Modes of the Game, Running Combat with very clear definitions (well done!), Movement and Position (including flanking, pull/push/slide) also very clear, Attacks, Conditions, Hit Points and Healing. This entire part is about 14 pages long but does not contain so much information as to overwhelm the newbie. However, given my enjoyment of the first encounter, I would have preferred a different format (see below).

The next 20 pages are the adventure. Note: within the adventure, the second encounter is a skill challenge which explained the concepts pretty well with many suggestions for skills the PCs might use. After the adventure, the PCs are leveled up (to level 2). At the end of this section reference is made to Heroes of the Fallen Lands and the following builds: Slayer Fighter, Mage Wizard, Thief Rogue, and Warpriest Cleric which I assume are the builds in this box though I don't recall seeing that explicitly stated. The last third of the book is advice on adventure design including ~12 pages of monster entries and a two page summary of the setting (Nentir Vale). There are a fair variety of monsters available for adventure building.

Overall, the writing is pretty clear throughout but I think this could have been better executed by following the format at the beginning of the book and introducing combat concepts in smaller chunks, encounter by encounter. This might have necessitated cutting out the adventure design portion or the bestiary, but I think it would give true newbies a better grasp of the system. For those who come from a wargaming background, what I have in mind is the way Squad Leader introduced its daunting rule set a bit at a time, following each quantum of rules with a scenario incorporating the new concepts. More recently, Battlelore did the something similar with its core Boxed set. This is not to say the execution here is poor, just that it could have been even better. I do appreciate that the designers chose not to include all conditions and concepts present in the 4th Edition core rulebooks as that would likely turn off (and actually did in my case) most newbies. In my opinion, this simplification of the system makes this boxed set pretty much useless for current 4th Edition veterans who are not this product’s audience in any event. As far as re-use, given that you only have two levels represented it is a bit limited. Also, for improved re-use potential, I would've vastly preferred Dungeon Tiles. That having been said, one can imagine putting together reasonable encounters for a party of four you create in the player's book. In the player's book, for the Rogue and Cleric there are at least two paths for each and the wizard could easily choose different spells.

In conclusion, this is an attractively packaged boxed set which employs a well-considered format to accomplish its design goal: the introduction of new players to the Dungeons and Dragons, 4th Edition rules. A few missteps in the execution including key editing errors, a lack of detail in some areas, suboptimal component quality (the power cards) and questionable art selection decisions keep this from being a truly remarkable product. Nevertheless, all RPG companies should take note of this for its approach to introducing new (RPG) players to a complex game system.
 

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